Wednesday, December 12, 2007

BBC iPlayer - not quite Web 2.0

I received my BBC iPlayer beta invitation in the summer but didn't really use it much - then it wouldn't work on Vista so that was another delay. Anyway, it's now arrived on my machine and it's an interesting experiment which embraces elements of Web 2.0 in terms of technology without necessarily embracing it in terms of the ways in which people use the internet.
For an exhaustive explanation of what's installed when you invite the iPlayer into your digital life, you'll need to look elsewhere. Suffice to say that the iPlayer uses the same Kontiki technology which powers Channel 4's 4oD service and Sky's Anytime.
On loading up you're presented with menus from the last 7 days of transmissions across BBC1-4, plus a series of recommended programmes in the main splash screen. Obviously you can search, plus programmes are categorised into, er, categories.
Selecting a programme downloads it to your computer, where it's stored in the iPlayer Library for 28 days or 7 days after you start to watch it. Everything is done using DRM, hence it only works in Windows Media Player, however a Flash-based version is arriving after an agreement between the Beeb and Adobe.
The iPlayer is a P2P application, which means it (optionally) can load when your computer starts and then sits in the system tray, sharing what you've downloaded through your internet connection in a Torrent-like way. That (at the moment) is about the limit of anything approaching Web 2.0 uses.
For anyone who's used the internet in the last, ooh, three years, there are immediately several things which just feel like they're missing.

  • Did you like an episode of something (Blue Peter, The Mighty Boosh, Coast) and want to automatically download the rest the next time they're available? Sorry, no can do.
  • Did you think something was good and wanted to:
    • recommend it to a friend?
    • comment on it?
    • rate it? Sorry, not possible.
  • Did you fancy getting a feed of programmes which matched a keyword or some other criteria so you could link to them from elsewhere? Nope.
  • How about finding out what other people who watched the programme you've just seen watched as well? I don't think so.

Well, those all seem like quite trivial things, but they're not to those who use any media rich social networking site, whether it's based around video, audio, images or text. Maybe the iPlayer is intended for people of a certain age, who it's perceived would control a computer or media centre in a household. As for younger people with TVs in their rooms and teachers trying to encourage the consumption of media to support learning, they'll (for the moment) have to look elsewhere if they want to embed resources in their learning and teaching. Especially if this happens a lot:
I would imagine that with a project like this the "beta"aspect - a term clearly perpetuated and changed in recent years - would apply more to the technological logistics of making sure the P2P network works, rather than the user interface, so maybe things won't improve in subsequent versions. Overall it feels like the iPlayer wants to embrace the benefits of Web 2.0 (P2P and the reduced bandwidth required by the BBC) and avoid any potential pifalls (users commenting unfavourably on programmes, or not rating the expensive ones well enough? It'd be like a geuinely democratic Points Of View).
In the meantime, here's something for your gifted and talented students - originally broadcast on the BBC but naturally hosted elsewhere and, to my mind, completely appropriate. It was shown to a group of "young people" and compared with Channel 4's Skins and the idiotic Whatever as part of Charlie Brooker's Screen Wipe on BBC4. I'd link to the video on the iPlayer so you could watch it but, er... Anyway, alongside Skins it was the most engaging for those involved:

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